Writer, researcher, academic and erstwhile community TV activist, Ellie Rennie has been involved in community media for almost 25 years.
In 2001 she joined the CBF Board and has used her wisdom, knowledge and expertise to ensure community media remains vital to the fabric of Australian society. After nine years, she recently retired from the Board leaving a considerable legacy behind her.
We took the opportunity to find out more about her story and asked her to reflect on her time at the CBF and the changes she has seen in sector over the last couple of decades.
What’s your story?
I grew up in a media family. My parents met while working at the ABC and later had a production business, making anything from Ansett safety videos to audio-visual installations for museums. My Mum had a t-shirt that said, ‘if it moves we shoot it’! I still remember the smell of film rolls from all the time I spent in editing suites as a kid.
I was studying political science at Melbourne Uni when I first became aware of community media. Being behind the camera and supporting others to make media was, for me, the most impactful way to change the power structures of society. When I heard about community television I was keen to get involved, to test that theory if nothing else.
How did you get involved in community broadcasting?
I started working on a SKA TV program called Access News in 1996. This weekly program featured mostly environmental issues and protest coverage. We also held an annual fundraiser called The Activist Awards, hosted by comedian Rod Quantock. The trophy was a hand giving the finger.
Today it is normal for amateurs to make and distribute video to bring about social change, but in the 1990s television was a tightly-guarded professional field. We tried to destabilise that through our pared-back aesthetic and video ‘witnessing’ of events such as S11 protests against meeting of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, the Goolengook blockade to protect old growth forests in East Gippsland and the campaign to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine. We were ahead of our time.
As SKA TV was a founding member group of C31, we were also heavily involved in keeping the station on air, helping out wherever we could, including organising telethons. The station was always on the brink of closing due to financial pressures, its governance model, and lack of policy certainty.
In 1999, C31’s station manager drew my attention to a PhD scholarship to look at the ‘future of community television’, which I applied for and completed. More than one person joked ‘Well that won’t be a very long thesis, will it’. Two decades later, C31 is hanging in there, but is still vulnerable.
What do you love about community broadcasting?
From 2007, I spent some years assisting the remote Indigenous broadcasting sector with policy-related research. At the time, Dot West, who is currently the Chairperson of First Nations Media Australia, perfectly articulated what’s important about community broadcasting for me: ‘Goolarri TV puts Broome and its people at the centre of things, not on the periphery’.
Community broadcasting takes the stories, ideas and information that are important to people (in their place) and makes that the focus. In the process it reorients the world. We don’t need algorithms to do that. We just need to be ourselves.
What attracted you to the CBF?
I joined the CBF as the inaugural Chair of the TV grants committee in mid-2011. I wanted to make sure that community media makers were not excluded from funding just because their audio came with pictures. They now have the same access to content funding as radio producers.
From the outside, the CBF can come across as bureaucratic, but it is really just a bunch of smart, fun, hard-working people – staff and volunteers alike. I will really miss being part of it.
What is your proudest achievement while on the Board?
The CBF has a better funding model as a result of changes we made to the governance and structure of the organisation in 2016. I was involved in that long and difficult process, and I stuck around to make sure it works. It does. I think the focus on outcomes, which have lasting and beneficial impacts for both stations and their communities, is something the CBF can take further.
I also think the CBF is better at communicating with stations than when I first joined. It’s easy to get caught up in processes and paperwork with the kind of work the CBF does, and the staff have worked hard to make communication an intentional focus for the organisation.
What do you think are greatest challenges facing the community broadcasting sector?
Greatest challenges? Let’s just get through 2020!
But seriously, the various crises this year have clearly shown that when things are tough, people tune in to their local stations for connection and (in the case of the bushfires) vital emergency information.
We have also seen how embedded community broadcasting is in other domains – stations rely on thriving local economies, face-to-face fundraisers and the music/arts sector.
What about opportunities?
Our biggest opportunity lies with new distribution platforms. American public radio is a good example of how non-commercial media can use technology to reach bigger audiences and earn more revenue for stations and producers.
The visible front-end is smart speakers and podcasting apps, but there’s a huge infrastructure behind these that the sector needs to master in order to make content discoverable to audiences. The new Multiplatform Distribution Project that the CBF is funding the CBAA to deliver will hopefully do that.
That said, we also need to keep in mind that digital platforms are complex amalgams of commercial and non-commercial interests. In particular, we need to keep an eye on how automated systems impact the discoverability of community-produced content, as well as data privacy.
It’s been great to see in recent years how the sector has shifted from being fearful of new distribution platforms to embracing them.
What’s next for you?
I started out in video-land, but it turns out that I love audio production. I’m currently producing a podcast on internet in remote communities, in collaboration with First Nations Media Australia’s inDigiMob project and Telstra (‘Disconnect’).
I am also planning to write science fiction in my spare time.
This is the first in a new series of in-depth interviews with people who have made a lasting contribution to community media.
Photos: Ellie Rennie (top), SKA TV reunion 2014 (middle)